House Passes Legislation Creates Rigorous Timeline for Responding to Public Information Requests

Submitted by Rep. Ken Gordon

Ken-Gordon-letterheadRepresentative Ken Gordon (D-Bedford) joined his colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives to pass legislation that updates its public records laws and enhances accountability measures. The legislation enumerates a time frame and process in which requested documents must be produced and ensures that judicial remedies can be sought.

“These reforms will significantly enhance accountability, access to public records, and enforcement,” said HouseSpeaker Robert A. DeLeo(D-Winthrop). “Our greatest asset in Massachusetts is our civic-minded citizenry and it is my hope that this bill will foster increased and productive engagement from the public. I wholeheartedly thank Chairs Kocot, Dempsey and Kulik for their incredible dedication and insight in crafting this balanced bill.”

“This legislation ensures that Massachusetts’ residents have access to a modern and strong public records law,”said Representative Peter V. Kocot, Chair of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight (D-Northampton). “I want to thank Speaker DeLeo, Chairman Dempsey and Vice-Chair Kulik for their leadership and commitment to this important issue.”

“As a former journalist I have been concerned for some time that public records should be more easily available. The public records law had not been touched since 1973 leaving a dire need to address electronic records, which had not existed then,” said Representative Gordon. “On the other hand, I have heard from our towns that procuring these records can become quite costly. I am glad that we were able to pass legislation thatallows access to these records while also easing the costs for towns.”

“The House has passed thoughtful and balanced legislation which improves access to public records while also protecting our cities and towns from overly burdensome procedures and unfunded mandates,” said Representative Stephen Kulik, Vice-Chair of the Joint Committee on Ways & Means (D-Worthington). “I thank our partners in municipal government for their constructive input in crafting this bill which responsibly improves transparency and accountability in all levels of government for our citizens.”

This consensus legislation represents the first update to state’s public records law in more than 40 years. Under the bill, Massachusetts will have standardized processes through which the public can access records and guidelines for the fees associated with obtaining documents.

This legislation requires municipalities and agencies to designate a records access officer to assist the public and facilitate timely responses.  To create a predictable and rigorous timeline for responses, the bill mandates that records access officers comply with a request within ten business days of receipt. If the officer is unable to do so, he or she must contact the requester to identify pertinent documents, provide a fee estimate and specify why more time is needed. The bill caps the amount of time that may be taken for a response. Agencies must comply within 60 days, and municipalities must comply within 75 days. An extension may only be granted one time.

To ensure that the public can access records for a reasonable fee, agencies and municipalities will be prevented from charging for the initial time spent responding to a request, unless that request exceeds two hours for municipalities and four hours for agencies. The hourly rate at which an agency or municipality can charge for a request is also capped in this bill, a provision which was not previously included in Massachusetts’ public records law. Fees and costs can be appealed by the requesting party and, accordingly, the supervisor of public records may reduce any unreasonable fee.

The judicial provisions, processes and remedies contained in this bill significantly heighten enforceability and accountability measures. Previously courts were unable to award attorney fees, address improperly incurred costs or award civil damages. Under this legislation, courts will now be able to award attorney fees, reduce or waive costs, and award civil damages. Additionally, the bill expands the Attorney General’s powers by granting the Attorney General the power to file an enforcement suit against any agency or municipality, and intervene in cases involving public records. It also empowers the Attorney General to seek civil penalties for violations of public records laws.

With changes included in the bill, records must be provided electronically and agencies must post commonly requested public records online. Records access officers will keep track of requests, response times and fees charged.

This bill follows the launch of free public WiFi at the State House and the Legislature’s updated website which received the Online Democracy Award, initiatives intended to facilitate public engagement.

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